A recent Writing Excuses episode to which I listened discussed the ideas of disordered storytelling, and means of writing stories that are intended to be read in an order other than from the first page to the last page. While I have found some of their recent episodes to be less helpful and insightful than their older episodes, this one intrigued me. Unfortunately, it didn’t really dig into the topic the way I hoped it would engage with it.
All of the examples and techniques discussed in the episode focused on writing that was, ultimately, still linking cause with effect. It might be at a smaller scale, like in just a single book within a larger series, so that you can read a series in any order, or maybe a book that is composed of a collection of short stories, and you can read the short stories in any order. In each of these cases, the “disordered” storytelling only goes so far – at the singular story level, you are still starting from the first page and reading to the last page.
Other examples involving various parallel or distant narrative structures, extended flashback sequences (like what Sanderson does in Stormlight Archives), and even time travel stories still fall into the same category. Yes, they might be, on the surface, a disordered form of storytelling, but ultimately all of these styles, types, and techniques are ordered on some level. You’re still reading a chapter at a time, there is still a relationship between cause and effect.
It got me to thinking about whether it would even be possible to write a truly disordered story, in which you manage to tell a coherent tale while divorcing cause from effect. This would be essential, I think, if you were to attempt a truly rigorous time travel story. What would that even look like? Is it possible? Well, I’m sure that it’s possible in the literary sense – they’ll write anything in those literary novels that nobody reads and therefore get to be called art – but I mean in the sense of telling a compelling, coherent story.
Given what you know of my background, you probably won’t be surprised that I turned to physics to examine this problem. One of the interesting things about theoretical physics, especially string theory, is that time’s arrow is absent. The normal flow of time, where effects follow causes, is not implied by many of the fundamental theories that physicists claim could describe our universe. There is nothing in the math of something like string theory that asserts that time must always flow in what we perceive as forward, from the future and towards the past. Quite the opposite, in fact: according to the math, we should witness causes following effects as often as we see effects following causes.
Sounds rather counterintuitive, and even theoretical physicists aren’t so buried in their mathematics that they fail to realize that we don’t see glasses un-shattered or milk un-spilling on a regular basis (the mathematicians, on the other hand, are a hopeless cause*). The most compelling explanation for why we see an apparent “arrow of time,” why we see effects following causes and not the other way around, is entropy. We talked about entropy in our review of Einstein’s Fridge (which you hopefully read, because it was an excellent book). Entropy can provide an arrow of time because it must never decrease. Since the entropy of a system cannot decrease, certain events must follow from certain other events, and not the other way around, as we experience every day. We don’t see glasses un-shattering or cars un-crashing because that would be a negative entropy event. While those can happen within a subset of a system (entropy would increase overall, but decrease in a localized area), they are far less likely to happen, and will require some kind of input of energy.
*Don’t worry, mathematicians. We like you that way.
What does this tell us about writing stories in which effects don’t follow causes? I think the answer is a resounding maybe. Physically, there is a justification to make effects not necessarily follow causes, especially in a story where you might be able to play around with and fudge the rules a little. Yet, I question whether such a story would be something that anyone would read. If effects don’t follow causes, then how do you resolve any conflict? For that matter, how do you have conflict in the first place? Things start to get really wonky, and really hard to wrap your brain around, very quickly in this paradigm.
It’s not something that I intend to try anytime soon, but I would be very interested in seeing if any of you manage to come up with a truly disordered story, something like we describe here instead of just an order story that is split up in an unusual way. Then again, maybe I’ll give it a try yesterday, after I succeed in doing it last year.